“Ripley” Creator Patricia Highsmith Witnessed Dawn of “Toxic Masculinity” & Nearly Wrote Wonder Woman

Emmy Award-winning series Fleabag’s very own “Hot Priest” Andrew Scott is set to star in the recently-announced Showtime series Ripley. That’s perfect casting for a cunning criminal psychopath hiding in the plain sight of leisurely Eurotrash society. Showtime is probably hoping for a new Dexter after the end of that show. Tom Ripley is an interesting character – but his creator, the crime novelist Patricia Highsmith is so much more interesting.

ripley
BBC/Vintage

Highsmith graduated from Barnard College in New York City and wrote 22 novels between 1950 and her death in 1995. She wrote mainly crime novels but didn’t create a recurring cop or detective hero who solved crimes. She wrote stories about men who make big mistakes and have to get through the consequences. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was about a man who inadvertently accepts a psycho’s suggestion that they murder each other’s unfaithful wives and provide each an alibi. Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie with a happier ending than the book’s.

She was the Expert in Creating Toxic, Deadly Men

Highsmith’s main characters were usually men. They were stalkers, weak husbands, repressed homosexuals, accidental murderers, failed would-be murderers, self-destructive con artists, you name it. These men often lacked self-awareness, deluded themselves, are in denial of their true natures. They fit categories we would call “toxic masculinity” today. Highsmith had a clinical, merciless view of them as she wrote the tragedies of these men’s lives into crime novels. Her stories unfold in a cold, godless universe. Her cold-eyed way of looking at the world seemed to scare the hell out of her biographer Andrew Wilson. 

It’s not surprising that Highsmith had a greater reputation in Europe than in the US for her unsentimental worldview. Many of her books were adapted into movies in Europe.

Tom Ripley is Highsmith’s Toxic Antihero

The one recurring character in Highsmith’s body of work was the amoral Tom Ripley. She wrote five novels about him. The first and third, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley’s Game, were each made into movies twice – each version very different from the last.

Highsmith described Ripley as alternately a psychopath and a sociopath – or more politely, “an intelligent, cultured gentleman who dabbles in art music, and occasionally, murder.” Ripley doesn’t murder people for kicks. He only wants enough money to maintain a life of leisure. However, boredom drives him to get involved in criminal schemes as much for the excitement as for money. Ripley is not a serial killer. He only kills people to stop them from exposing or killing him. Murder is a task or a chore to be crossed off his “to-do” list. He may be thoroughly self-serving and amoral, but he follows an ethical code. He forms homoerotic attachments to men though he never outright sleeps with them.

Tom Ripley was played in movies by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, Barry Pepper, and Matt Damon (though Jude Law would have been better). Scott was the majorly psychopathic Moriarty in Steven Moffat and Mark GatissSherlock, so he should be brilliant as the urbane and calculating Tom Ripley.

Highsmith Nearly Wrote Wonder Woman

As if her novels weren’t evidence enough of her bold, creative life, Highsmith also wrote comics – from 1942 to 1948. Her tales crossed a number of various genres: Crime, Westerns, War propaganda, Adventure, and superheroes – including some stories featuring the Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott.

Highsmith actually pitched to write Wonder Woman after creator William Moulton Marston passed away. Can you imagine? A fierce, politically progressive, frightening smart, gay woman approaching DC editors Julie Schwartz and Mort Weisinger in their office and presenting her take on the character? Those editors? Hardly.

The “bastions of feminist thinking” turned her down. As a result, Wonder Woman became the tamer, sexist version that mooned for marriage to Steve Trevor and ran for decades as a result.

Another great opportunity missed.